Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.

23 August 2012 on Blog, Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.   Tags:

Review: THE OREGON TRAIL IS THE OREGON TRAIL by Gregory Sherl

I just finished reading THE OREGON TRAIL IS THE OREGON TRAIL by Gregory Sherl. This book of poetry uses the famed Oregon Trail computer game of our youth as a loose template on which to graft his own very specific neuroses, contemplations of and battles with love, and death wonders. It sounds like a cool concept. You wonder if it will do justice to its conceit. Then it does!

Here are some things I appreciated about the book:

Stylistically: We often talk about how important line breaks are in poetry—how we choose to end one line and begin another. What it means for the writer and the reader. THE OREGON TRAIL IS THE OREGON TRAIL is written in one stanza chunks, like chicken mcnuggets. Mashed-together fowl from all kinds of geneses. One might think this form does not breed a well-thought out line break paradigm. I beg to differ. Let's take a few lines from The Oregon Trail in the last moments before dusk:

    When you unbutton your blouse, I think
    Flawed perfection
    . I hunt like a martyr,
    begging the forest to take me for what
    I am, somewhat of a good man. ”¦

    There are two instances here where Sherl gives Fantastic Line Break. Read only the salacious-promising first line to yourself. You must know what comes next. WHAT IS THE SPEAKER THINKING RE: THE UNBUTTONING BLOUSE? Great suspense-building, Sherl. When we get there, to the next line, our answer is simple and quickly ended (“Flawed perfection.”) Not only is this answer content-wise awesome (more on that later) (I think all human beings know a thing or two about flawed perfection, see Adam and Eve; Katy Perry; Your Boyfriend), but it gives us a big idea in a small, two-word package. This idea echoes through the rest of the poem, but we go so many different places in the speaker's psyche and land/computerscape, the connection does not seem too obvious.

    Between the second and third lines, Sherl leaves us with a different question: he gives us the information up front (“I hunt like a martyr”), but we want a further explanation of this very odd, seemingly oxymoronic statement—the “how”. And so we hungrily read on.

    Another thing which Sherl's form choice does is contain the stream-of-consciousness, energy-brimming soliloquies which make up this book. The nugget method seems a natural fit for the content which, while carefully crafted, comes off as a ceaseless, off-the-cuff tide of wanting. It is the speaker's way of encapsulating a fear or an experience on the Oregon Trail—a wife dying, Wendy #2 coming down with that damn fever again, fording a multitude of rivers, troubles at Fort Kearney—and leaving it behind, like so many cattle skulls along the trail (possibly to be revisited later).

    Content-Wise: These poems are strung together like dark pop songs off a particularly eclectic, favorite album. The titles range far and wide, and though the premise of each is unique, the overarching premise of the book is rock steady (traveling through life's trials and tribulations along video game of yore The Oregon Trail), and the speaker's strong and engaging persona never wavers. Or it does waver, but the core of the man we knew in The Oregon Trail starring Mel Gibson as directed by Mel Gibson is the same as The Oregon Trail is undergoing photosynthesis.

      Sherl plays with dual, simultaneous realities in this book: that of a settler on the computerized Oregon Trail, and that of a contemporary man engaged with the mysteries of sex, love, and death. That first reality, computer-Oregon-trail-settler, is complicated—we are travelling the Oregon Trail, but we are not. Sherl writes, “I can only carry 100 pounds of bison per trip,/so the flies are happy.” Now, your average, goodness-to-honest Oregon Trail settler might be able to carry a little less or a little more meat than that back to the wagon, but in the game the speaker's living in, 100 pounds is the limit. Despite these pixilated rules, the construct within which Sherl builds his own world, the reader does come to feel like his Oregon Trail is more accessible than the Oregon Trail read about in countless books, at infinite historic sites. This is quite a feat.

      What Sherl does by building a world that exists not only within a game/the olden days and contemporary reality is blend the two in unexpected, exciting ways. For example, from The Oregon Trail taught me how to love:

      We never hire the Indian guide. Instead,
      we keep the five dollars, roll it up, hide
      it in my wool sock. You look better in 3D.

      I envy Sherl's ability to live in two worlds at once—not to ask himself or the reader, “What would it be like to live in the computer game The Oregon Trail? What would it feel like?,” but to actually seem to exist there—and here.

      Sherl is also a master of simile: “The way I held/your hair like poison ivy?”

      And self-made axioms: “True love is finding wild fruit”; “Tonight I am your British invasion.”

      And talking about the body: when it is sick, when it is sexing, when it is in motion, when it is still”¦

      Recommendation: Buy this book! I can tell you from personal experience that it is great read-out-loud material for a long road trip. It is so good that one of the co-creators of the Oregon Trail wrote an ultra-laudatory blurb on the back of the book. But if you are not going to buy this book, definitely check out some pieces from THE OREGON TRAIL IS THE OREGON TRAIL here, and here, and here.

      --Lucy Hitz

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